Set in rural India in the years surrounding India’s independence (1947), Mother India tells the story of Radha, a poor, illiterate villager who struggles to care for her family. Radha’s husband Shyamu is forced to pawn the gold bangles which come in her dowry (known as stree dhan or the woman’s wealth), their land, their cows and ancestral brassware to pay their usurious debt to the village moneylender Sukhi Lala. Floods strike, destroying Radha’s home and killing two of her four children. Seeing an opportunity, Sukhi Lala offers Radha money in exchange for sexual favours after Shyamu abandons her. Refusing to relent, Radha raises her two surviving children single-handedly. Her enormous strength and willpower enable her to succeed where Shyamu fails. Radha’s accomplishments earn her the title of the mother of the entire village, which becomes a symbol for the nation as a whole: hence the iconic title Mother India.
Mother India was a remake of Mehboob’s own hit talkie Aurat (Woman, 1939), inspired by the Hollywood film The Good Earth (1937). Aurat’s success helped Mehboob to set up his own studio, which featured a hammer and a sickle in its logo.1 Although it is often taken to be a sign of communist propaganda, Mehboob’s use of the hammer and sickle is better understood as a strong evocation of his humble origins as a farmer and his love of peasant life.2 Aurat was one of the earliest talkies to be set in rural India. While Aurat is a gritty tale of female suffering and sacrifice that ends in the death of a heartbroken mother, Mehboob elevates Mother India to a national scale by drawing on the twin experiences of independence and partition. This is evident not only from the change in the title but also in various stylistic augmentations, made possible by the then new technology of Gevacolor.3 Mehboob and his cameraman Faredoon Irani shot on location using synch sound in his native Gujarat, bringing a heightened, spectacular realism that was new to Bombay cinema. The new version included actual footage from a flood which was matched with carefully constructed studio shots.
Mother India combines a striking use of red earth tones with sensational scenes of rural festivity, deploying them to create a glamorous family drama that unfolds in the unlikely setting of the village. The film opens with Soviet-style imagery of tractors that till a verdant, thriving land set against the backdrop of a newly constructed dam. Asked to inaugurate the dam, an old Radha, seen in extreme close-up, shakes her severely lined, worn face in disbelief. Contemporary audiences would have immediately recognised the tractor and dam as potent signifiers of the Nehruvian ideal of socialist progress. As villagers urge her to perform the prestigious task, memories of Radha’s traumatic past break through the dam’s floodgates. This provocative segue sets up a point of view that is distinctly marked as one that belongs to Radha, leading to a flashback that reveals a competing, untold story. We then see Radha as a young, stunningly beautiful bride who unselfishly removes her bridal finery to throw herself into the task of nurturing her home. The paying off of the debt tells only one part of this story. Shyamu loses both his arms (and his masculinity) in a horrific accident that reduces him into another mouth to be fed. Radha is harassed by Sukhi Lala at every opportunity; in a significant downturn, her younger son Birju betrays her trust by turning into a ganja (marijuana)-smoking bandit. As if this is not enough, Birju kidnaps Sukhi Lala’s daughter Rupa from her wedding altar. Although Birju is driven by a desire to avenge his mother’s mistreatment, in doing so he jeopardises Radha’s painstakingly earned goodwill and izzat, a word that connotes chastity as well as respectability. Radha implores Birju to give Rupa up and not harm her izzat: by now, izzat encompasses the chastity and respectability of both women. When Birju refuses, Radha threatens to kill him, a move that signifies her greater commitment to the village. In a shocking and unprecedented move, Radha shoots her beloved son in one single, spectacularly fatal shot. No other Indian film has portrayed motherhood so graphically, showing Radha’s awesome beauty at one moment while telescoping her brutal loss in the other.
The fall-out between son and mother embodies all the key struggles that structure Mother India: money against honour, debt against self-reliance, subjugation versus independence, individual identity against the collective Good, traditional family loyalty against the modern State, and finally, male inadequacy against female power. While Mother India begs to be considered as an Oedipal drama, it also disrupts any straightforward Freudian reading by depicting a son who, within the world of the film, cannot have the mother: instead, the mother kills the son. Radha herself embodies an intense maternal love that turns against itself in the explosive climax.
Indeed, Mother India’s universe is one that threatens to fall apart constantly. Its polarisation of personal love and national commitment is extreme. The two can be reconciled only in the affective realm of the personal but not in the material, social world of the film. Only Birju’s spectacular death can leave his memory intact. The event allows Mother India to register the volatility of a transformation that turns the nostalgic, idyllic space of the village into a unit reorganised along the lines of a modern nation state that provides partial and insufficient justice. Equally, the film also celebrates Radha’s herculean effort in a haunting frame that depicts a human map of undivided India against the lush, lyrical background of fields swelling with grain; a shot that wishfully erases painful memories of the Partition. This shot is followed by an iconic tableau that rejoices in a Christ-like Radha, harnessed to a plough that eventually becomes her cross as she heaves herself unknowingly into a traumatic future.
Scenes like this translate the trauma of colonialism and Partition into a recognizable psychic register organised according to love between mother and son who are sundered apart. So profound was Mother India’s dramatic impact that it may well be characterised as the mother of melodrama in Bombay cinema. Central here is the problem of allegiance to the new nation, which demands a rapid overhaul of older loyalties, forms of kinship and their attendant moral values: Birju sacrifices his life for his mother’s honour while Radha sacrifices Birju for the future of her land. Radha’s torn state of mind is illustrated in a key sequence that occurs during Holi, a festival that celebrates the spring harvest. Sukhi Lala’s daughter Rupa dances seductively at the festival, wearing Radha’s bangles to seduce Birju. The audience knows that Sukhi Lala has wrongfully appropriated jewellery from Radha’s dowry. Thus Rupa’s expression of sexual desire is perverse and sadistic; moreover, she berates Birju for coveting the bangles instead of her. Incensed, Birju tries to yank his mother’s bangles from Rupa’s wrists. Afraid of Birju’s intensifying rebellion, Sukhi Lala accuses him of molesting his daughter. This sets off an angry mob, which ties Birju to a stake and smokes him out of haystacks when he tries to hide, injuring him with a bullet. Red hues from Birju’s blood, Radha’s sari and the rising flames bleed into each other in quick swish pans that evoke a sense of hysteria and panic. This is a make or break moment of truth: Radha must choose between love for her son or uphold her respect and duty toward the land. Colour orchestrates the effects that express Radha’s abiding love for Birju while her chilling screams reverberate across a land from which she is suddenly alienated. Memories of this impossible choice pervade the concluding sequence, where blood washes across the scene as Radha reluctantly unlocks the dam’s floodgates, releasing red water. Blood ties finally triumph over the memory of Radha’s public quelling of Birju, making room for a recollection that at last acknowledges his psychic motivations: he dies in her arms, clutching her blood-soaked bangles. This telling image is superimposed over images of a past that appear heroic to others but are now suffused with recognition of Radha’s colossal sacrifice.
Mother India remains significant for a number of other reasons as well, particularly because it marks a major shift in its lead actress Nargis’s career. In her previous collaborations with co-star and director Raj Kapoor, Nargis often appeared as an urban, seductive heroine. In Mehboob’s Andaz (1949), she appeared as a spoiled, rich city girl. Other examples include Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955), which feature variations of an urban star persona epitomised by her short, bobbed hair, westernised attire and frank sexuality. Together, Nargis and Raj Kapoor stood for sexual boldness because of their much-publicised affair. However, Kapoor was already married and apparently refused to marry her.4 Nargis had become so involved with Raj Kapoor that she neglected her original mentor Mehboob until disenchantment with her current relationship with Kapoor pushed her into taking Mother India on. Given this history, Nargis’s portrayal of Radha remained highly sexualised – in another famous sequence, she offers herself to Sukhi Lala in a decision that says ‘anything to feed my hungry children’. Divine intervention helps Radha to find the strength to fight Sukhi Lala but her willingness to risk her reputation pushes the limits of what screen mothers can and cannot do, in a film where female honour is at an absolute premium. What’s more, Nargis would bid a permanent goodbye to Kapoor and soon marry her co-star Sunil Dutt. Ironically, Dutt played Birju in Mother India. In the climactic fire sequence discussed above, rising flames threatened to kill both actors but Dutt saved Nargis in a brave, selfless act that has now become a legendary story about abiding love.5 In his career, though, Dutt was a beginner. His Birju came across as an uncouth, attractive youth with a raw machismo. The performance worked and won the audience over as it responded to Birju’s iconoclastic vigilantism. Nargis was clearly the bigger star here but her marriage to an unknown actor provided even more grist to the gossip mills, adding to Mother India’s wild popularity. Ultimately, Nargis came to be remembered most for her performance as the rustic, fiercely independent Radha and as the wife of Sunil Dutt. Though Mehboob tried to suppress news of the so-called ‘mother-son’ marriage, it spread like wildfire, doing little damage to the film’s success: in Kala Bazaar (The Black Market, 1960), Mother India appears as a film so popular that it launched a thriving black market in Bombay cinemas. In fact, the scandal structured one more melodramatic coup d’état that allowed the son to ‘get’ the mother although she had destroyed him on screen.6
Indeed, Mother India inspired dozens of other films, notably Gunga Jumna (1961) and Deewar (The Wall, 1975).7 The print was carefully guarded to prevent duplication, ensuring that it ran continuously in theatres until the 1980s, a period that saw major transformations in post-independence Bombay cinema. Like Birju, Deewar’s protagonist Vijay dies in a lover-like embrace in his mother’s arms. Politicians like Indira Gandhi drew significantly on Nargis as Mother of the Nation during election campaigns, replacing older iconographies with a cinematically inflected political reappraisal.8 Mother India’s long afterlife offers further testimony of its searing melodramatic intensity. More recently, the fire sequence reappears in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007) as an example of a struggling actor’s undying love for the film’s leading female star. Whatever the emphasis, Mother India plays out on a monumental scale that remains unsurpassed in Bombay cinema.
1. Aurat was produced by National Studios. Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen note that Mehboob started out as an actor in the silent era, gradually working his way up to direct films for some of the most important studios of the late silent and early sound era, including Imperial and Sagar movietone. See Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, London, British Film Institute, 1999, p. 145.
2. Mehboob explains in an article published in Filmfare, 1957, ‘I took the hammer and sickle as our symbol, because we considered ourselves workers and not just producers, directors and stars. I am not communist’ (quoted in Chatterjee, 2002: 72).
3. The film was shot in Gevacolor and printed in Technicolor. See Chatterjee, 2002: 20–1.
4. For a detailed discussion of Nargis’s preMother India star persona, see Majumdar, 2009: 153–5. See also Thomas, 1989: 23.
5. Sunil Dutt recounts this moment in the documentary Nargis Dutt, dir. Priya Dutt, Films Division, 1992.
6. See Thomas, 1989: 27: ‘the son [finally] “got” the mother’. This marriage shocked viewers because Nargis came from a Muslim family while Dutt was a Hindu. Nargis’s mother was a poet, scriptwriter and filmmaker during the silent era at a time when any association with cinema tarnished the woman’s reputation. Nargis, on the other hand, was brought up in Bombay and had had a privileged, Westernised education. Mehboob persuaded her to star in his Taqdeer/Fate (1943), where she played her first lead role, at the age of 14. Her subsequent affair with Kapoor fuelled speculations about her loose character, which came to be associated with her mother’s disrepute. Her appearance in Mother India and her marriage to Sunil Dutt had a defining effect on Nargis’s final public persona, that of a social activist and champion of India’s social upliftment.
7. Other films that ran continuously for long periods of time include Sholay (1975), Hum Apke Hain Kaun (1992) and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1996).
8. As a newly elected Member of Parliament at the Rajya Sabha, Nargis attacked Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) for catering to Western audiences by foregrounding India’s poverty, rather than its success as a nation. See Parama Roy, Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988, pp. 168–73; also Thomas, 1989: 29 for an insightful discussion of how Indira Gandhi appropriated captions like ‘Mother India needs you’ in the 1980 electoral campaign.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: India. Production Company: Mehboob Studios. Director: Mehboob Khan. Producer: Mehboob Khan. Dialogue: Wajahat Mirza and S. Ali Raza. Cinematographer: Faredoon Irani. Music: Naushad. Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni. Editor: Shamsudin Kadri. Dance Director: Chiman Sethi. Costumes: Fazal Din. Cast: Nargis (Radha), Raaj Kumar (Shyamu), Sunil Dutt (Birju), Rajendra Kumar (Ramu), Kanhaiya Lal (Sukhi Lala), Master Sajid (young Birju), Jiloo (mother-in-law), Chanchal (Rupa).]
Sumita S. Chakravarty, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema 1947–1987, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1993.
Gayatri Chatterjee, Mother India, New Delhi, Penguin, 2002.
Neepa Majumdar, Wanted Cultural Ladies Only! Chicago, Illinois University Press, 2009.
Rosie Thomas, ‘Sanctity and Scanda: The Mythologization of Mother India’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1989, pp. 11–29.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.